After receiving over 10,000 false fire and police alarms last year, Sandy Springs is making a major legal shift to put alarm companies, rather than alarm-users, on the hook for registration and fines. But security company owners rang alarm bells at a July 18 City Council meeting where the change was approved, saying it would force them to raise costs or stop doing business in the city.
City officials say the system of fining alarm-users has barely reduced false alarms since it was enacted in 2012. Last year, “97-plus percent” of all alarm alerts were false, Fire Rescue Chief Keith Sanders said, and the city spent over $776,000 responding to them. Security company owners had feisty responses, with some debating Mayor Rusty Paul while he threatened to have others removed from the audience for applauding or grumbling aloud. But the business owners appeared to misunderstand key points and had to step back from some criticism of city statistics.
City Councilmember Gabriel Sterling summed up the city’s view that the false-alarm buck should stop at private, for-profit companies, not the public coffers.
“This is going to be a burden on small companies…but we have a burden on our taxpayers right now and on our public safety [departments],” Sterling said.
Diane Freeland of Georgia Security Systems, a company based in McDonough, Ga., was among those business owners who unsuccessfully argued that the city should crack down harder on alarm customers instead.
“To attack and to add fines to a small company is detrimental,” she said.
Alarms are considered false when they come from devices that use automatic systems or call centers to contact 911 about a fire or crime emergency that turns out to be nonexistent. False alarms are a perennial and significant problem in the industry, especially because residents or business owners may accidentally trigger their own alarms in a variety of ways. The problem is common enough that a private company created a program – called “CryWolf” – to help cities register and track false alarms, a service that Sandy Springs uses.
In 2012, Sandy Springs joined several other nearby cities, including Atlanta and Dunwoody, in writing false-alarm ordinances that all took the strategy of targeting alarm customers. Under the Sandy Springs law, alarm customers are responsible for registering their devices with the city and for paying fines up to $500 per false alarm. If a location has unpaid false-alarm fines or other excessive false-alarm issues, the city can place it a “non-response” list, meaning 911 dispatchers will ignore calls generated by its alarm system, but will still respond to direct calls from a person there. The city currently has 1,148 locations on the non-response list.
At the time of that 2012 law, the city had about 12,000 false alarms a year. In the following five years, that has declined to about 10,000 – what Sanders called only a “slight” improvement – and false fire alarms are actually above the 2012 level.
The vast majority of the city’s false alarms last year – 9,292 of them – were burglar alarms to police. The other 974 false alarms were fire calls.
Sanders said false alarms remain a problem because the 2012 ordinance is “very difficult for us to enforce.” People who never registered their alarms generated 19 percent of last year’s false alarms, Sanders said. And more than 930 locations had two or more false alarms. About 15,000 alarm systems are registered with the city.
Officials say that fine collection rates are high, but that the fines simply aren’t changing alarm-users’ behaviors enough. Campaigns to educate people about avoid false alarms and the registration requirement would be time-consuming and expensive, Sanders said. Registration was a significant issue for the city in the year following the 2012 ordinance, with the council waving fines to encourage compliance.
For a better strategy, Sandy Springs city staff looked to news reports of other cities that have focused on the alarm companies instead. They include Seattle, which reported a 50 percent drop in false alarms since instituting its policy in 2004, and Salt Lake City, which reported a 90.5 percent drop in false alarms in its first year of company-focused registration and fines.
The new Sandy Springs law requires the company that installs and services the alarm to register it, and puts that company on the hook for false-alarm fines. Those fines escalate quicker: $25 for a first offense; $250 for the second and third; and $500 for all subsequent offenses. In addition, a location will go on the non-response list if it has four false alarms within any two-year period. The law has some other provisions, including a ban on panic buttons designed in a way that makes them easy to trigger accidentally, and a requirement that alarm companies have two phone numbers to call to verify an alarm is a real emergency before calling 911.
The City Council delayed action on the law for a few months, partly to get input from the Security Industry Alarm Coalition. City officials said that group just wanted to boost the fines on alarm-users.
At the July 18 council meeting, some business owners seemed to misunderstand that fine collection was the problem, or confused the terms “customer” and “taxpayer” when talking about who would pick up any added costs.
Dan Gordon of Gordon Security Systems in Buford, Ga., said that on a $25 alarm service contract, he makes about $5 profit, which a single fine could wipe out for months or years. He said he would prefer an automatic non-response listing rather than fines, and also suggested that big alarm companies will “tie this up in court” with lawsuits.
Freeland of Georgia Security Systems was among those who debated Paul. She suggested the city’s statistics are inflated because police sometimes list a false alarm when they in fact simply overlooked a fleeing criminal.
“Is that your experience in Sandy Springs?” Paul asked her.
“No, not in Sandy Springs,” Freeland answered, leaving Paul to respond, “So how is that relevant to us?”
The new false-alarm law takes effect Sept. 1 and the fine system Oct. 1.